Born William Clark Gable on February 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio, the future star was the only child of a farmer-turned-oil driller. Gable's mother died when he was seven months old, and by 14 he had struck out on his own. After a series of jobs that included tire-factory worker, oil driller and lumberjack, he began in theater as a "callboy" who warned such stars as John and Lionel Barrymore of approaching entrances. It was Lionel who arranged for Gable's first screen test at MGM, but that studio turned him down. So did Warner Bros., where producer Darryl F. Zanuck made the famous pronouncement: "His ears are too big. He looks like an ape."
After several jobs as an extra, Gable finally landed the role of a Western heavy in The Painted Desert (1931). That same year MGM reconsidered and put him under contract, and he quickly became their hottest new male star. In 1931 alone, Gable appeared in a dozen films including A Free Soul opposite Norma Shearer and Possessed opposite Joan Crawford. At the end of 1932, after reteaming with Shearer in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, tangling with Jean Harlow in Red Dust and cutting up with Wallace Beery in Hell Divers, Gable appeared on the list of Top 10 moneymakers. He would remain there until his movie career was interrupted by service in World War II.
Cast on loan-out to Columbia in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) as a punishment for turning down a routine role at MGM, Gable commiserated with costar Claudette Colbert about working at a minor studio in what they considered to be an inadequate script. To their astonishment, this screwball comedy brought them Best Actor and Actress Academy Awards along with winning the Oscar® as Best Picture. Gable's other hits of the 1930s included Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), San Francisco (1936) and Saratoga (1937), his final teaming with Harlow. His only real miss of the period was Parnell (1937) with another frequent costar, Myrna Loy.
Gable's archetypal role was that of Rhett Butler, the Civil War scalawag/ladies' man in Gone With the Wind (1939). Even Margaret Mitchell, the novel's author, agreed that no one else could have played the role, which would replenish Gable's fan base every time the film was reissued. Gable's costars of the 1940s included Rosalind Russell in They Met in Bombay (1941) and Lana Turner in Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), his last film before joining the Air Force for wartime service that brought him medals for bombing missions over Germany. His third wife, actress Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash as she returned from a War Bond drive in January 1942.
A more somber and mature Gable returned in Adventure (1945), opposite Greer Garson, and The Hucksters (1947), costarring Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. He headed the all-star cast of the excellent war drama Command Decision (1948), playing a general. Gardner was his leading lady in both the Western Lone Star (1952) and the jungle adventure Mogambo (1953), a remake of Red Dust (1932), one of his successes with Harlow. Betrayed (1954), his final film at MGM, had him romancing Lana Turner again.
As a free-lancer, Gable continued to star in movies including the entertaining Western The Tall Men (1955) and the suspenseful submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). As he aged, he continued to play opposite leading sex symbols including Jane Russell, Sophia Loren, Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe, the costar of his final film, The Misfits (1961). The strain of performing his own stunts in the latter movie may have led to the heart attack that claimed Gable's life on November 16, 1960. Susan F. Walker's documentary, Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome (1996), offers a fascinating look at the actor described in his New York Times obituary as "consistently and stubbornly all man."
by Roger Fristoe